2010 March: The Great Outdoors

When Mike Wilson opened his first Fellini’s Pizza in a renovated gas station in Atlanta in 1982, giving patrons the opportunity to eat their pizza al fresco was a priority.

“There’s nothing better than pizza, a pitcher of beer and eating it outdoors,” says Wilson, whose small chain now has six additional locations, each featuring ample patios.

“Some of our restaurants are as big as our patios,” Wilson says. “Patios are family-friendly. We put a water feature — a fountain –– in each of them. Our restaurants are known for being fun and casual.”

A patio adds seating capacity in temperate months and increases sales at Fellini’s, where Wilson estimates revenues rise by between 25 and 30 percent on a beautiful day. Joanie Thomas, owner of Joanie’s Pizzeria in St. Louis, tells a similar story about her patio’s effect on sales.

“We have a full patio with capacity for 100. And we have indoor seating for 80 to 100,” says Thomas. “When the patio is in full-swing, we have 50 percent more sales.”

Increasing capacity and sales are two reasons to consider adding al fresco dining. Deciding whether it is right for a pizzeria, and deciding how much to invest in it, depends on how an operator sees the business. And even if snow may be flying outside the pizzeria windows, it’s not too early to begin planning for an outdoor space. According to Wilson, the patios at Fellini’s are crucial to projecting the fun, casual atmosphere he wants his restaurants to have. He prefers his patios be at the front of his buildings, rather than hidden at the rear of his freestanding units.

“People like to see what’s going on in front on the street,” Wilson says. “They don’t want to look at a parking lot.”

The patios at Fellini’s not only provide a comfortable place for patrons to eat, but are a subtle form of marketing. “I think the patios add to the look, the feel and the ambience,” Wilson says. “If people drive by a restaurant that looks like fun, then they will be more willing to try it out.”

At Joanie’s Pizzeria, the outdoor patio is in keeping with the feel of the neighborhood, and is a feature that she thinks her diners expect. “Because of the neighborhood I’m in, people want to sit outside,” Thomas says. “I’m in an historic neighborhood. It’s an old French neighborhood with lots of courtyards and patios.”

Giving diners the option to eat al fresco is not as simple as putting down a concrete floor and adding some tables and chairs.

“You have to find out your local codes or your designer needs to be knowledgeable about them,” says Frank Stocco of National Restaurant Design in Minneapolis.

“There are a lot of different rules for patios,” Wilson adds. Operators “should call the city, and they’ll give you a whole list of recommendations.”

Plenty of decisions will be required, from what sort of flooring is best, to what type of tables and chairs are needed to how many doors are required from the dining room to the outdoor space.

“Typically codes state that there should be a door for entering the patio from the restaurant and another door though which the food is served,” Stocco says. “If you need to put in a door to the patio, I don’t think anyone’s going to let you just punch a hole in the building.”

For flooring, Stocco says he prefers stone tile in large, fl at blocks. “You want to have a smooth surface,” he says. “Nothing that’s so bumpy that it’s going to cause tables and chairs to rock.”

Thomas said she would recommend choosing flooring that is easy to maintain. “I’d say do more of an outdoor tile or a stone aggregate. I have basic concrete and it gets stained easily.”

The grade of furniture in the outdoor space may depend on the pizzeria’s sales volume and the sort of ambience the operator wants to evoke. “If you’re doing a million or 1.5 million in sales, then you want your chairs to be substantial,” Stocco says. “Don’t throw plastic chairs out there. Make the patio as attractive a setting as your dining room. But if you’re serving pizza by the slice and pop in paper cups, then go ahead and put plastic chairs out there.”

The tables and chairs at Fellini’s are wrought iron. If an owner opts for plastic, Wilson recommends making them the highest grade possible. “We go with wrought iron because it looks good and it lasts longer,” Wilson says. “Plastic doesn’t last that long and it can break. Plastic is fine as long as it is restaurant quality.”

Both Wilson and Thomas are able to use their patios from April through October. “Anytime it’s about 65 degrees, it’s good patio weather,” Wilson says. “We generally schedule the wait staff according to the weather. We have a minimum staff and we call in extras if it’s a beautiful day.”

At Joanie’s, Thomas extends the season for her patio by using propane heaters in cooler months. She has a staff of about 16 waiters that increases to about 23 in warmer months. About a half–dozen of her staffers are what she calls “weather-permitting” staff. “If it rains or if it’s cold, they know to call in and then they don’t have to come in,” she says.

The possibility of inclement weather such as rain, or even extremely hot days in warmer climes, brings other decisions for operators considering opening a patio. Should a patio have a canopy or umbrellas? If a patio has a canopy, then lighting is required in it so people can read their menus. For hot, steamy climates, Stocco says some restaurateurs furnish patios with devices that emit a fine spray of cool mist.

For Thomas, not having a canopy means her patio is sometimes not useable in summer. “If you book a party on the patio and it rains then you have to bring everybody inside and there’s a lot of stress involved,” she says. Patios also require seasonal maintenance.

“You have to seal and caulk cracks in the concrete,” Thomas says. “You have to power wash it and you have to break it down in winter, winterize it and put everything away.”

Despite such headaches, Thomas and Wilson say their patios are worth it. “People want to be outdoors,” says Thomas. “They just love being outdoors.” Says Wilson: “Patios are our signature.” ?

Annemarie Mannion
is a freelance writer in Willowbrook, Illinois.